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Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

3.91  ·  Rating Details ·  443 Ratings  ·  62 Reviews
John Coltrane left an indelible mark on the world, but what was the essence of his achievement that makes him so prized forty years after his death? What were the factors that helped Coltrane become who he was? And what would a John Coltrane look like now--or are we looking for the wrong signs?

In this deftly written, riveting study, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff a
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Paperback, 272 pages
Published October 28th 2008 by Picador (first published September 18th 2007)
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Community Reviews

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Juha
Apr 15, 2012 Juha rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: all people who have a serious interest in jazz.
Shelves: history, music, biography
This was an absolutely fabulous book. Mind you, it’s not a biography of John Coltrane and was never meant to be – read the subtitle: “The Story of A Sound.” Ratliff provides a fascinating and detailed story about how this sound that would be more influential than any other in this music that has come to be broadly defined as ‘jazz’ evolved. Having listened to Coltrane for some four decades and knowing most of his records in and out, this book provided me with so many insights into the music and ...more
Mike
Feb 28, 2008 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In most of the readings I have done on jazz, the problem I usually encounter is the writing about technique and technical aspects of the music. As I am not a student of music, I have a little difficulty getting my brain wrapped around the technical jargon. This was the case for parts of this book.

However, for the most part, I found the book illuminating in that it helped me to better appreciate, or rather better articulate my appreciation for, the music and the work of John Coltrane. The name ha
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Kevin Tole
If there was ever a case for a book being first and foremost an audio-book, then Ben Ratliff's comprehensive book on John Coltrane IS that book. Mr Ratcliff is the jazz critic for the New York Times.
I was searching for a biography of Coltrane as I was listening to his music more and more and references were cropping up regularly to him in books on painting. I wanted to understand where he had come from and how he fundamentally changed the shape of jazz. This book starts with a fairly regular rac
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Ernie
Quick, fun, yet highly insightful read.

While most music critics concern themselves with drawing distinctions between the various stylistic phases of a musician's career, Ratliff pursues the unity of a musician's 'sound' — "a full and sensible embodiment of his artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note," (x). For him, Trane's 'sound' is the end result of "a slow but unstoppable process" (202) that unified his diverse experiments with a seemingly endless variety o
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Arthur Hoyle
Jun 10, 2015 Arthur Hoyle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Jazz lovers
This is a book for jazz lovers. Ratliff displays extensive knowledge of the forms and structures of jazz as he leads the reader through the evolution of Coltrane's unique sound, which had a major influence on his contemporaries, especially saxophone players, and on many jazz musicians who followed him. Ratliff makes the case that Coltrane pushed jazz into new realms through his experiments with harmonics and the use of repetition that anticipates the music of Philip Glass. Coltrane is portrayed ...more
Dave
May 01, 2014 Dave rated it liked it
Rating this lower based on my own experience--I don't know enough about musical structure to fully understand all of Ratliff's comments. That said, he does a great job of explaining Coltrane's choices and the thought and study that went into them. Second half is not quite as good, since he's trying to explain all of the ways Coltrane has been understood/interpreted/worshiped/rejected, and he can't quite simplify as elegantly. At times, discussing later Coltrane, it's not that different from read ...more
Jeff Jackson
Apr 01, 2008 Jeff Jackson rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: free-jazz
Provocative, well-written, and concise look at the evolution of Coltrane as a musician and how his sound shaped jazz in the decaes after his death. Essential reading for fans, but I can't shake the sense that Ratliff doesn't entirely dig Coltrane. I mean, what's up with a Trane book that devotes three times as many pages to random saxophonist Marcus Strickland as to Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, both of whom actually played with the man?
Brian
Jul 31, 2011 Brian rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love the first half of this book. Ratliff does some great research and deftly describes Coltrane's sound without relying too much on musical theory jargon (which can often be deadly for people who aren't musicologists). The second half, though, loses a bit of steam and is far less coherent. Still, for fans of Coltrane, this is a welcome addition to growing body of work on the musician.
Tim
Jul 25, 2011 Tim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Like most people my age, one of my first introductions to jazz was with the music of John Coltrane. Even before I heard his music, I knew his name. Growing up as a child of the 80’s, Coltrane was everywhere in pop culture references. From the decadence and excess of that decade came a vision of jazz that was almost too superficial in some respects. It became “high society” to listen to the music, even if a person didn’t really understand it. Musicians talked about Coltrane constantly…being a big ...more
Adam
Jul 04, 2010 Adam rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-and-music
This is not amazing prose, but it’s well-researched. I imagine historians and jazzbos alike would be disappointed with this book. But if you’re like me, and love Coltrane because you love the sounds, songs, and playing on his records, then you might like this book. As a jazz music listener outsider, I’d say that this book is a great introduction. As the sub-title of the book claims, it’s the story of sound of Coltrane. Of course, there’s touches of biography, history, cultural trends, and politi ...more
Tim Niland
Oct 08, 2007 Tim Niland rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2007reads
Ben Ratliff is the chief jazz critic for the New York Times and his highly anticipated biography of the legendary saxophonist and composer John Coltrane is a sightly uneven mix of musical and social history. Ratliff's stated goal in this book is to not focus as much on standard biography, but to chart the evolution of Coltrane's music. It's a short work, broken into two roughly 100 page segments, the first being a just-the-facts-ma'am recounting of the evolution of his music, and then the second ...more
Italo  Perazzoli
Mar 04, 2014 Italo Perazzoli rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book should be read with the music of John William Coltrane the great American Jazz saxophonist and composer
.
"Trane" was an ambassador of the Bepop and Hard Pop, he was also famous for his improvisation, the abc of the jazz music, the use of "musical modes" rather than chord progression as a harmonic framework.

His life was not exemplary, he was a drug addict and alcoholic, this was the first step, for discovering his hidden spirituality.

His first wife was Yuanita Naima Grubbs, after a brief
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Laura
Feb 16, 2008 Laura rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2008
I loved this book! I am a jazz neophyte and picked up the bok to learn more. It didn't look scary - the book's not too thick, the type a reasonable size. Ultimately, I did need to look up a few words as my vocabulary has shrunk since my last vocab test - but I really enjoyed this book. I used wikipedia for information since the book picks up at a pivotal moment in jazz - after bebop, before hard bop, to free jazz, and to modern times. I needed to research context a bit before I could wrap my hea ...more
David Rullo
Mar 28, 2016 David Rullo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent book however, because it does exactly what the story states, it leaves you wanting more. Ben Ratliff knows a thing or two about jazz and spends the entire book exploring both Coltrane's sound and the influence of his sound. He certainly doesn't feel the need to give many biographical details, even where it might pertain to the music. There also isn't a lot of talk with his former band leaders. What did Davis or Monk think of his playing? How did Davis deal with Coltrane's mo ...more
Mark Field
Sep 22, 2013 Mark Field rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ipod-shuffle, 2013
I have been somewhat obsessed with Coltrane's music for nigh on 30 years now. There was many a night in my university flat where I subjected my very tolerant flatmates to Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things"!
This book proved insightful, I have never sought to read a biography of Coltrane, thought I am sure I will one day, but I found this book helpful in adding some "meaning" to my appreciation of Coltrane's music. I have no formal musical training or education and no real understanding of
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Liam
It's a bit disconcerting to read a book about jazz written by a guy who is roughly the same age as myself (Mr. Ratliff was born in 1968), as most people my age don't listen to jazz very much, if at all. Ben Ratliff is a reporter for the New York Times, however, and fully lives up to the standard which that implies. I have read several books about John Coltrane, and this one is easily the best. It is both thorough enough for the musician or serious scholar of jazz not to lose interest, but still ...more
Lou Columbus
I'm torn about my star rating for this review. The book is very well written and probably not intended for someone like me. I'm not a musician, nor an intellectual and I felt at times like I was in over my head when reading this book. Mr. Ratliff attempts to delve into what John Coltrane was trying to achieve through his music. I'm sure he researched extensively and there are several interview excerpts peppered throughout, but in the end, it all feels a bit like a science experiment. While I enj ...more
David Mueller
May 20, 2014 David Mueller rated it really liked it
So much Coltrane criticism veers toward either hagiographic hyperbole on one end or academic sleepy times on the other. Ratliff cuts a clean middle path. In doing so he manages to critically address not only the music but the greater Coltrane legacy without getting tripped up in the redundant bickering that has so often characterized writing on the saxophonist's work. Really, the best thing I got out of reading this book was an introduction to a Coltrane record I somehow missed- 1964's Crescent ...more
Phil Overeem
Feb 21, 2008 Phil Overeem rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Man, this book's a gem. Had read three previous Trane books; this smokes 'em all. Ratliff writes about music on a weekly basis for The New York Times but that didn't prepare me for this. Essentially, he's interested in two things: what influences and choices and reflections led Coltrane to forge the path he did, and why Trane's death discombobulated jazz. He examines both threads in detail, writes intelligently about the actual music without losing the non-player (like me), fearlessly deconstruc ...more
Donna Lewis
Apr 18, 2016 Donna Lewis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was both a wonderful book and a tedious book to read. The details on music theory were onerous, but there were many interesting bits about Coltrane, his study of literature, art, politics, philosophy, astronomy, current events, and how they helped form his music and the direction his performances went. I also enjoyed seeing how his music influenced the hundreds of jazz musicians that have performed since. Nearly every musician - pop, jazz, rock - can trace his influence. His music has a vis ...more
Shek
May 18, 2009 Shek rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: borrowing
A very smart, very well-written book on jazz's final sax God that admires him rather than worships him, and succinctly explains and deconstructs his mythology, understanding it as an inevitable and destructive force in music. Ratliff concentrates on the development of Coltrane's style - his practice habits, his improvisational methods, his embouchure, his tone, and his interactions with musicians ranging from the group leaders he came up with to the neophytes he'd invite up to the bandstand in h ...more
Matt
Mar 11, 2009 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've started plenty of books about Coltrane and never finished one. This book, though technically involved (plenty of discussion of sixteenth-notes here) is astonishingly easy to read, and Ratliff has a razor-sharp ability to see the finer points in Coltrane's music and influence as points of departure for a larger thinking about jazz's place in history, rather than relying on the usual "Coltrane was god and we'll never see another like him" approach, which makes for boring literature and worthl ...more
Richard Ladew
May 28, 2008 Richard Ladew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Broken down in a non technical way that helped give me more insight as well as things to listen for the next time I pop in some Coltrane.

The emphasis many listeners and musicians place on jazz always needing to evolve, rebel, or push boundaries (myself included) never struck me as such a stumbling block before reading this book.

Learning to hear jazz as more of a folk idiom should be a challenge for me.

Appreciated the punk-rock angle - nods to Iggy Pop, Mike Watt, Nels Cline, and a few others he
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Patrick
Jun 24, 2013 Patrick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ratliff is a jazz critic at the NYTimes. This book is not a bio of coltrane's life, rather it's a bio of his sound and legacy. The book is divided into two sections, the first looks at his sound, the second, his legacy.

Really enjoyed this. So often, the writing about jazz I encounter is more explanatory than critical and this is clearly a critical assessment of Coltrane's sound. The section on coltrane's legacy was fascinating. I just haven't encountered much contemporary writing about jazz that
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Lucky
Nov 17, 2008 Lucky rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not really such a fan of bebop or hard bop, or whatever you want to call it, but it's always interesting to me to read about different kinds of musicians; their journeys, their relationships, their approach to sound. This book focused almost entirely on the music of Coltrane, i completely skips over his youth, and starts write at the beginning of his professional music career. A lot of it was interesting, but at times it seemed to me, it went on like a bebop song, words for the sake of words ...more
Deej Greenwood
I have to say that this book is written for "Muso's". The musical lingo would be baffling to someone who isn't familiar with it. I found this book difficult to read after about the half way point because I thought it was a book of Ben Ratliff telling people who would like to read a biography on Mr. Coltrane just how much he knows about music.

If you don't know your lydian from your dorian you shan't be allowed to learn! And that, for me, is why it gets two stars. (It's also very early and I'm tir
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Noel
Jun 28, 2012 Noel rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Ratliff states that Coltrane's last performance is from "The Olatunji Concert". Yet, the "The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording" liner notes state he performed one more time in Baltimore. He doesn't address this confusion. And this (simple) error, or unwillingness to address it lowers my confidence in the book.

Otherwise, an interesting read. The diction in latter half of the book repeats itself, and the syntax is a bit disorganized. Purposeful, like Coltrane's playing?
Mikko
Jun 16, 2015 Mikko rated it really liked it
Smart book, well researched biography about one of the greatest sax players. Book is divided into two parts: first one is about Coltrane's personal growth as a musician from the mid 1940s until his death. This part contains a great detailed look into his music and is enjoyable to read. Second part of the book is about his importance in jazz. Ratliff is tracing Coltrane's sound through out the book and does it well, with the focus on music. Made me listen to Coltrane's albums with new ears.
Ron
Jun 22, 2008 Ron rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ratliff isn't interested in Coltrane's biography so much as in the impact of his music on the jazz that came after him. He understands the importance of jazz as a collaborative medium, where playing styles are constantly influenced by interactions with other musicians and internal responses to the music that came before. Coltrane is "the last major innovator in jazz" because that's how critics and musicians view him; so how did they come to view him that way?
Sergio Negrón
this could be described as a biography of coltrane's sound, instead of his life. it does go back and forth, but it tries to stay on the question of the music and it's evolution through the decade or so of coltrane's kneedeep exploration of Sound. the writing gets a bit bleh at times, but it's one of the best i've read.
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